As of midnight last night the first lucky punters got their hands on the latest in the Halo saga. The latest game marks not only a new start in terms of 343 Industries succeeding Bungie in developing the series but potentially the thrust and shape of the entire story.
Like many fans of Halo since the beginning, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this title and I practised diligently on Halo: Reach (the last Halo game by Bungie) in preparation.
However, rather than spend my entire weekend playing the game in its entirety as planned, a cock-up at Microsoft’s end resulted in the game arriving yesterday by snail mail. Yes, the post. Then again, judging by Ireland’s postal system I’m lucky it arrived at all before Christmas.
So because of that this won’t be a full-blown review of the campaign and the new multiplayer War Games, Spartan Ops, Forge and Theatre features, but a first look at what I managed to experience of the campaign in the few hours I decided to dedicate to the game last night rather than attending any glitzy launch parties. Hopefully, time permitting, we’ll get you the full review soon enough.
It’s been five years since Halo 3
The first thing you need to realise about this game is that it has been about five years since Halo 3 came out. Yes, that’s five years since the mesmerising end of the game where Master Chief raced across a distant world falling into the abyss and saved humanity from the Covenant.
It’s remarkable that in that time we’ve had various games about the Halo universe, including Halo: ODST, Halo: Reach and a strategy game called Halo Wars. We’ve even had a Halo: Combat Evolved anniversary edition to mark the 10th anniversary of the first game which came out in 2001. My attachment to the franchise goes back to some point in 2000 when I got a sneak preview of the game from a local Microsoft team in Ireland.
My reaction back then was pure enchantment. I hadn’t seen anyone create a game or a universe like this. The physics of the game play, as well as the immersive world(s) that Bungie and Microsoft had created, were extraordinary.
So Master Chief’s been asleep for four years, what’s new?
The game opens with a prologue involving the scientist behind the Spartan programme, Dr Halsey, being interrogated. It’s four years after the events of Halo 3 and Master Chief has gone missing. There’s a dark mood in the air and this prologue raises new questions about the chief – his sociopathic tendencies and a hint that future games in the series will relate that humanity’s battle is not with the Covenant or the Forerunners, but with itself.
We find Master Chief cryogenically frozen in the wreckage of the UNSC frigate Forward Onto Dawn being awoken by his AI sidekick Cortana. A battle ensues as the frigate falls under attack by the remaining forces of what were the Covenant legions and Master Chief and Cortana have to fight their way off the ship. They then emerge on the artificial planet of Requiem, one of the mysterious Forerunners (the new generation of baddies) worlds.
Having spent the last 10 years of my video-gaming life as the series evolved, I was hoping that as 343 picked up the mantle that sense of mystery, wonder and uniqueness that intrigued everyone in 2001 would return.
Gameplay: the new world of Requiem
I wasn’t disappointed and I get the sense that a number of things are going on here. The opening missions gloriously recreate that feeling of arriving on a new planet as in the first Halo, only instead of looking at a circular world skimming off into the distance, massive towers rise high into the sky as far as the eye can see. I get the sense that this is a kind of a paen in gaming terms or a tipping of the hat to the Bungie team, complete with missions involving cartographers and finding your way through architecture that defies imagination.
The action feels different as Master Chief fights his way through this new world complete with his new enemies. There seems to be better control of the character and weapons, for one thing, and there’s a grittiness to the game that wouldn’t feel out of place in games like Call of Duty. I felt that with Reach the HUD camera seemed to swing faster than you wanted it, making it at times impossible to accurately and efficiently dispatch a Brute, for example.
But with Halo 4, accuracy seems easier to ensure and the weapons also feel different, more satisfying, in fact. UNSC weapons seem louder and forceful and so, too, do the Covenant weapons, which seem to have evolved in the four years Master Chief was asleep, including a really cool Storm Rifle I think is the Covenant’s version of a Tommy Gun. In the opening moments of game the chief himself acknowledges there seems to be more fight in this current crop of Covenant marauders.
So first off, the game feels louder, darker and yet more colourful as you trek across spaceship wreckage, heart-stopping architecture, desert plains and verdant jungles.
But the action is definitely more satisfactory and intense, too, as bullets, grenades and plasma rip through the enemy hordes.
So this is definitely Halo, the Halo we all grew to love back in those days of low resolution and low-latency bandwidth. But it is very much of its time and lends itself ideally to wide-screen, high-definition gameplay. It also seems to load quicker on the Xbox 360 than the last Halo game Reach.
The key difference this time is the new crop of enemies, the Forerunners. They are at first infuriating to fight, with this ability to disappear and reappear and as well as large obvious targets that require concentration, they come with small dog-like robotic creatures that require you to keep an eye on the low ground and aerial drones that require you to look upwards.
Eventually you get into the swing of things and as you do you have the opportunity to check out the Promethean Forerunners’ slick new technology. Pick up a weapon and it floats in the air in parts before reassembling. This can be a little annoying as you lose about half a second of gameplay and you could get shot in the meantime. That said, the guns and grenades are cool to use. There’s a kind of bolt-gun pistol that appears to pack more punch than the traditional M6G Magnum I always end up throwing away in the game. There’s also a kind of an automatic fire rifle called the Suppressor which seems pretty handy in close quarters.
Verdict so far
I’m only at the early stages of the game but have to say it is so far meeting and exceeding expectations.
The mystery and allure of the first game is recreated and sustained and the action is full throttle.
Old enemies like the Covenant are as fun as ever to fight and destroy while the new enemies, the Promethean Forerunners, will force you to forget everything you thought you knew and start again, developing new tactics and employing weapons and technology differently.
Above all, 343 Industries has succeeded in engendering the one quality Halo gamers appreciate: the desire to get home and keep playing.